Why the Back-pass rule was introduced in football and how it is exploited today

back pass rule football
The goalkeeper is not allowed to catch the ball with his hands after a backpass

The Beautiful game” has evolved over the years – be it in philosophy, tactics, formation or most importantly the rules. Most of the current rules of football were moulded based on “the historic meeting at Cambridge in 1863 which also led to the formation of the famous Football Association. The rules of football have undergone tremendous amendments over the years, change built on change.

Primitive football had several things which are unthinkable in the modern age. This includes playing without crossbars, bare handed goalkeepers, and the famous all-black football boots. More importantly, there have been two changes which are important facets of the game i.e. abolishing the tackles from behind and the introduction of the controversial back-pass rule.

Why the Back-pass rule was introduced in football

In the early 1990s, it was permissible for the goalkeeper to handle a back pass. This meant that when the ball was deliberately passed to the keeper; he could catch the ball with his hands, hold it closely to his chest and wait for as long as possible to release it back into play. This is completely opposite to the present day where the keeper has to rely on his feet rather than his hands to handle a back pass.

The defensive option of back pass was rarely abused. However, as the game became more cynical, anti-football in the 1990s started rearing its ugly head. As Jonathan Wilson writes in The Outsider:

"A general rethink about the laws of the game had been promoted by the negativity of the 1990 World Cup and, in particular one passage of play in the group match between the Republic of Ireland and Egypt in which the Irish keeper Packie Bonner held the ball for almost six minutes without releasing it."

After ‘negative football’ reached its nadir at the 1992 Euros, FIFA changed the rules of the game and prohibited the goalkeepers from picking up a deliberate back pass. The game changed forever and for the better. This important change ensured that there was less time-wasting and more attacking play.

The Back-pass rule

“The back pass rule refers to two clauses within Law 12 of the Laws of the Game of association football.

A goalkeeper is not permitted to touch the ball with his hand inside his own penalty area in the following circumstances:

  1. If he touches the ball with his hands after it has been deliberately kicked to him by a teammate
  2. If he touches the ball with his hands after he has received it directly from a throw-in taken by a teammate

An indirect free kick is awarded to the opposing team from the place where the offence occurred, i.e. where the goalkeeper handled the ball.”

However, a number of caveats are part of this law. These include the fact that:

  • A goalkeeper can handle a ball if it is headed on by his team mate
  • It is also not a foul if the ball is directed to the keeper from any part of the teammate’s body apart from his foot
  • A miscued kick can also be collected by the goalkeeper and cannot be deemed as a foul

Exploitation of the Back-pass rule

Some players have sought unique ways to exploit this rule. These include flicking the ball with the foot and passing it to the keeper with his head, chest or knee. In such an event, there is a further sub law which states that an indirect free kick should be awarded in case the keeper handles it. However, it is deemed a foul only if it is meant to waste time.

If a head, chest, or knee pass to the goalkeeper is done to eliminate danger (for example, a player heads the ball to the goalie after a pass from a teammate because there is an attacker beside him), the referee will not call a violation of the back-pass rule.

In the referee’s perspective, it is sometimes very difficult to judge what is an intentional or an unintentional pass. There have been quite a few instances when back passes have been identified as deliberate and called by the referees.

However, there are also instances when unseen deliberate back passes has caused some controversy. The loss of PSG at Bordeaux few days ago highlighted this when a blatant back pass went unnoticed and caused the infamous rant from Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

Since the dark days of early 1990s where teams and goalkeepers could hold the game to ransom, football today has become more entertaining. The inception of the back pass rule has facilitated this and football as a whole has benefitted as there is less of time wasting and negative tactics employed by teams. The rule has brought about a game which is more fluid, skillful and attractive.

However, it is fascinating to imagine what today’s football would be like had this rule not been implemented.

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Edited by Staff Editor